What everyone is talking about: COVID-19 (and science diplomacy?)

We currently all feel united in our worries about the infectious disease COVID-19 and the socio-economic crisis that is following. The S4D4C team members are of course also concerned, for example we had to cancel a meeting planned in Prague mid-March due to the crisis and replace it with a series of virtual meetings. Meeting virtually from our home-offices, we are quite excited that a lot of the discussions currently are related to the interaction spheres between international relations, research, science advise and we perceive lots of connections to our case studies and the policy recommendations we are developing.

S4D4C initiated some changes to address the crisis. We have updated our risk management plan and created a COVID-19 S4D4C task force. In response to numerous requests for statements from the press and stakeholders we issued a policy brief “Building Better Science Diplomacy for Global Challenges: insights from the COVID-19 crisis” (see: https://www.s4d4c.eu/policy-brief-building-better-science-diplomacy-for-global-challenges-insights-from-the-covid-19-crisis) in June 2020. Furthermore, we also summarised our preliminary results for Science Diplomacy. India’s Global Digest of Multidisciplinary Science, Vol. 3(4)Science Diplomacy to Address the COVID-19 Crisis: Perspectives from S4D4C” (see https://www.niscair.res.in/includes/images/sciencediplomacy/Science-Diplomacy-April-June-2020.pdf).

More than ever, our postulate of the Madrid Declaration that “Science diplomacy is often not fully exploited at all levels of governance and especially at supranational levels” holds  true. On the one hand, coordinated efforts are visible and show how for example joint programming can react quickly to support research projects.

As the EC highlights “To fight #coronavirus the world urgently needs effective and safe diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. The EU is organising a #GlobalResponse pledging effort to finance life-saving solutions. Join the marathon and spread the word: https://europa.eu/global-response/#UnitedAgainstCoronavirus“. We try to keep track of some European initiatives such as

Clearly we also observe a re-emergence of the nation-state without adequate coordination on data collection and monitoring (e.g. on infections and deaths) which makes adequate answers more difficult. Europe needs to share its models that lead to specific science advise and make us stronger in answering a challenge together. What we are seeing is science diplomacy trying to invent and redefine itself in the context of a crisis.

The S4D4C team wants to acknowledge the challenges but also the opportunities of the situation and emphasise the importance of international scientific cooperation and science diplomacy that enables us in times of emergencies to react quickly and to coordinate.

We want to stress the importance of the social sciences and humanities and social action in times of a crisis where research and development receive global attention, the benefits of open science and open data in international health emergencies and how science diplomacy could help us in times of crisis.


In cooperation with members of the S4D4C team, we aim to highlight a few specific aspects:

Pandemics require a collective response that is evidence driven. Katja Mayer, researcher at the Centre for Social Innovation based in Austria, points out that “Rapidly sharing scientific information helps to provide urgently needed guidance to epidemiologists, clinicians, nurses, modellers, as well as other public health actors, policy makers and civil society organisations to plan and evaluate the effectiveness of their interventions.”
Recent outbreaks (e.g. Ebola) have taught us that we need inclusive international governance, strong comparative methodology and robust, accessible infrastructures to fight such a pandemic efficiently. In general, many science diplomats are currently out there, creating and negotiating standards and guidelines on data sharing and reuse, establishing global best practices adhering to the special local circumstances, maximising the efficiency of global research collaborations.

Mitchell Young, Assistant Professor in the Department of European Studies at Charles University in Prague, points out that it is essential that scientists have accurate, trustworthy, and common data to work with in a situation such as this. The “Statement on data sharing in public health emergencies” is a result of science diplomacy and is one of the few lasting impacts of the Zika crisis, which the S4D4C project studied. The institutionalization of data sharing prior to the current crisis has powered the data dashboards on COVID-19. However, these dashboards are limited in the metrics and data which they collect and share – fully understanding and resolving the crisis requires far more granular detail to be shared by national and sub-national actors.

Katja Mayer insists that transparent sharing of scientific data and methods on the virus itself, its spread but also on public health and other measures is of great importance, so that we can effectively slow down the spread, develop biomedical responses, but also compare different measures across regions and sociopolitical systems. Katja Mayer insists that only then we can learn and adapt continuously. Efficiently fighting pandemics requires rapid access to high quality knowledge and (re)use of existing data and infrastructures. We see Open Science happening not only in Europe at the moment, the global research community has already activated and pooled its resources. The question now is, how to best support them, financially as well as policy wise. Science diplomacy can help here to build bridges as well as to ensure cross border data sharing and collaboration.
Lessons from other outbreaks like Ebola teach us that the rapid sharing of high quality data from science and public health actors is of utmost importance. Open Science is the principle of the moment: opening scientific data and methods, sharing guidelines and standards, as well as on the ground data on spread and interventions, and making this knowledge reusable now and for future outbreaks.

A more detailed article by Katja can be read also on our website: Open Science Diplomacy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mitchell Young also points out the remarkable extent to which a common narrative on COVID-19 has already been achieved. Science diplomacy activities have supported the policy regime of social distancing rather than one of herd immunity. The result is that nearly all countries have decided to take strict social distancing measures, including closing borders. But it is important not to misinterpret closing borders as closing relations. In fact, the ability to temporarily close borders and retain deep integration is a sign of European strength.

While we can be critical of the initial response and European coordination, the following aspects need to be highlighted:

Marga Gual Soler, scholar at The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) who advised former EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas on science diplomacy, reminds us that the competences on health issues lie with the Member States. “The coronavirus crisis has been a test of EU capacity for coordination and a missed opportunity for intra-European solidarity. Countries taking unilateral measures and failing to respond to calls for help from their neighbors have been understandably criticized. But it’s important to remember that the EU can only act in those areas where its member countries have authorised it to do so via the EU treaties. In public health matters, the EU can only support, coordinate or complement the action of member countries, and cannot impose uniform supranational measures to manage cross-border epidemics. However, health and research ministers could come together in a common strategy for testing, quarantine and mobility measures, and joint research on drugs and vaccines. And after the crisis, Member States should confer permanent public health coordination authority to the EU, at least for transnational emergencies.”

Elke Dall, coordinator of the S4D4C project at the Centre for Social Innovation in Austria, points out that the joint programming of research funds is well established in the European Union and has actually been efficient and flexible in this crisis. An emergency call under the European Framework Programme supporting research (Horizon 2020) has already selected 17 projects and allocated a budget of 47.5 million Euros. The call was launched on January 30 and the rapid application and selection process should be celebrated. More than 100 institutions are involved in these multidisciplinary projects that will improve the response to the outbreak through transnational cooperation. Also the innovative medicines initiative (IMI) has mobilised research funding agencies to coordinate their support. There is huge potential to negotiate a further pooling of funds and coordination of efforts currently supported nationally.


S4D4C also joined the #SciDipTalks: Science Diplomacy in a Changing World organised by the SciTech DiploHub. These were five online sessions that explore the role of international cooperation in the current crisis:

SciDipTalks announcement

SciDipTalks announcement

SESSION 1 “Science Diplomacy and Pandemics: A call for greater international cooperation” – March 26th, 6:00 PM (CET) – moderated by Alexis Roig, Chief Executive Officer of SciTech DiploHub, explored the role of international cooperation in global health crisis management, while specifically addressing the importance of science diplomacy in pandemics. The discussants include Lorenzo Melchor, Science Diplomacy Officer at S4D4C and EU science advice and diplomacy officer in the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT), Julia MacKenzie, Senior Director for International Affairs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, an S4D4C associated partner), Ilona Kickbusch, Chair of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and Antoni Plasència, Director General of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal). A detailed review of this online event is provided in the article here.

SESSION 2 “The COVID-19 Crisis in Europe: A Failure of Science Diplomacy?” – April 2nd: 6:00 PM (CET) – was moderated by Carme Colomina. Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and journalist at Diari Ara. Alexis Roig provided the introducing and closing words for the three panelists: Pol Morillas, Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), Sara Cebrián, Science and Innovation Attaché of the British Embassy in Madrid and our S4D4C team member Ivo Šlosarčík, Professor of European Integration Studies and Jean Monnet Chair in EU Politics and Administration at Charles University in Prague. We also provide a detailed review of this online event: here.

The series continued to take place every Thursday at 18:00 CEST and each time addresses a specific topic related to COVID-19 (albeit without participation of S4D4C colleagues): April 9th: “Barcelona and the COVID-19 pandemic: The role of global cities”; April 16th:“Diplomatica Cientifica contra la pandemia: Iberoamerica antes la crisis del COVID-19”; April 23rd: “Technology at the service of global health crisis: Threats and opportunities”.


S4D4C and team member Marga Gual Soler were also cited in an article of Forbes in relation to the crisis. Marga also published a personal reflection on Science Diplomacy & COVID-19 for the International Network for Government Science Advise (INGSA). The network also published a “resource page” on COVID-19, with a view to support science advsiors and science diplomats: https://www.ingsa.org/covid. She also presented at the Science Diplomacy webinar of Duke University (US) on May 7.

Furthermore, we can recommend to hear Paul Berkman, director of Tufts University’s Science Diplomacy Center and S4D4C advsory board member who spoke on March 26 at an online talk “Operating Short-Term to Long-Term through the COVID-19 Pandemic: Negotiating a Global Renaissance with Science Diplomacy” hosted by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. During this time of crisis and uncertainty, “science diplomats” have opportunities to build international, inclusive networks, facilitating informed decision-making that balances national and common interests “for the benefit of all on Earth across generations,” according to Berkman. Collaborative negotiation skills can help guide this challenging process. “Science is a tool of diplomacy,” said Berkman. “We all have opportunities to serve as science diplomats, bringing together allies and adversaries.” A summary of the talk is available here and the recording can be reached here.

As mentioned, S4D4C plans to publish a policy brief and continue with our research and practice activities throughout these days and weeks.

Most importantly, we hope that all of you stay healthy and that there will be also some positive aspects to this emergency!


For further knowledge resources on the topic you might want to check out:


Article first published March 26, 2020.

Last update: July 1, 2020.

Elke Dall

Posted by Elke Dall